Pings on the sonar heralded the continuation of a long, bitter hatred.
“Enemy detected on sonar! Speed twenty, distance fifteen!”
“We’ve got a pingback! Speed twenty-five, distance thirteen!”
“Captain, several enemies approaching! Speed and heading confirmed!”
Imperial sonar operators found the Republic 7th Fleet approaching in great number, all confirmed by previous combat data loaded into their computers. All kinds of ship classes were detected, with different speeds, sizes, headings across the Great Ayre Reach. Swarms of fast cutters and mighty cruisers led the vanguard, while lumbering dreadnoughts followed into the contested zone. Faces lit green and blue by their instruments, the operators breathlessly tracked the action.
Those faint sounds picked up by hydrophone became the first drumbeat of the war.
Technicians in the Republic fleet took notice of the Imperial Grand Western Fleet and sounded their own alarms as well. Neither side was close enough for their best weapons to take effect, but they both launched acoustic “headless” torpedoes at each other. Gas gunners stationed in the close-in defenses of both fleets would find and shoot all of these down on approach.
Both fleets mustered in formations across the Great Ayre Reach, the soft sands and scant kelp beds stretching out for vast kilometers. It was a rare, valuable place where the ocean floor rose into the photic zone at only 300 meters deep, able to receive some scant sunlight through the waves. Its currents were gentle, unlike most of the photic zone, and Leviathans rarely disturbed it.
Amid the violent seas that had long since become the exclusive home of humankind, it was one of a few paradises worth dying for, one of the few pockets of peace close to the forbidding surface of the Imbrium Ocean. Assembling over these holy lands that hid ship hulks and corpses of hundreds of years of battles, the crusading sides neared to their effective ranges of between one and two kilometers. There were hundreds of ships in each side, built from material long struggled for beneath the waves. All of this engineering power thrust toward its own place amid those sands.
“For world peace!” cried the Republicans.
“For the glory of the Emperor!” came the Imperial retort.
All laser communications were rejected from either side.
This encounter had already been spoken for. There would be no parlay.
The Great Ayre Reach would inevitably be fought for.
At the head of the 500-strong Imperial formation was the Irmingard, a massive blade of a vessel clad regal purple and gold, sporting dozens of cannons set into its hull. Within this lead dreadnought was a mock throne room that acted as the brain of this invasion force: and its id.
“All weapons stations are reporting sir.”
Aboard the Imperial flagship Irmingard, the master of this fleet stood up from his throne to the rapt attention and admiration of his most loyal retainers. There, he gave the orders which resounded across the decks of the dozens of ships arrayed for battle. Powerful laser equipment tethered the Irmingard to every other fleet, so that all of them could view the regal countenance on video. His Majesty stood stoically before the soldiers and shouted with a gallant voice:
“All ships: today, you shall unleash a fusillade bright enough to be seen from the surface.”
And so that fusillade did fly. The Fifth Battle of the Great Ayre Reach was underway.
Across those gentle waters roared jet shells, supercavitating rounds and massive torpedoes.
Lines in the water spread by the thousands as the ordnance traveled.
Criss-crossing fire punctuated by the blooming of massive bubbles as charges exploded.
There were immediate casualties. A wire-guided Republican torpedo snaked through the defensive fire from the Imperial frigates and slammed into the hull of a Destroyer, snapping the vessel in two. While the command pod survived and was immediately sealed watertight, several dozens of crew were drowned in their stations, torn to pieces in the storm of metal, or worst, cast out into the open sea to have their internal organs crushed by the pressure around them.
Just as quickly, these losses were repaid. That bright fusillade of jet shells rolled across the vanguard of the Republican fleet. Scout cutters, deployed ahead, withered under the barrage, disgorging metal and bloodied men and women. Larger vessels withstood greater punishment, with each shell that struck their hulls and exploded leaving gashes and dents in the exterior. Fires started where the crushing force of a shell damaged electrical equipment. It took dozens of shells of concentrated fire, but a Republican Cruiser, the Dignitary, was the first major casualty of the battle.
With one lucky shot to the torpedo magazine, the entire face of the Dignitary burst.
Each side watched as their fleets exchanged blows, as ships that faltered beneath the gunfire and missiles sank to the sand below, as human beings unprotected by metal were hurled and sliced and crushed. A thin red mist began to form around Ayre as the casualties mounted. For fleets of hundreds of ships, losing fifty a side was routine: but each ship was crewed by hundreds of souls. Within a half hour of the barrage, perhaps ten or twenty thousand bodies had been broken.
For the young man who bid this spectacle commence, these casualties were expected and did little to reduce his own power and potential. He had reserves and the advantage in manpower, supply and technology base. He saw beyond this moment of bloodletting that had become expected and looked to the violence that would soon follow. A beautiful chaos was coming to the world that would shake the foundations and allow men of dynamism and ambition to finally take control.
Even for all his farsightedness however, there was little inkling in his mind as to where the ripple of his bombs and guns would truly travel to and the souls that it would soon actually touch.
A wave hurtled across the waters to a calm sea one ocean away.
To a place far, far beneath Prince Erich’s notice.